11 November 2020

The Purpose Economy | Is Purpose Working Podcast Episode 2

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the 2nd episode of our podcast season: Is Purpose Working?
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread  and Chris Pirie of Learning is the New Working interview Aaron Hurst, thinker, founder of Taproot, CEO of Imperative, and author of the book The Purpose Economy.
  • We ask Aaron questions such as, Why the purpose age represents a new economic era and major progress in humanizing work, What last year’s Business Roundtable commitment to Purpose did for a lot of CEOs, and What role L&D has in Purpose.
  • A special thanks to our season Sponsor, NovoEd for their support!

Listen

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Guest

Aaron Hurst – Author of the book, The Purpose Economy

Details

Purpose has become more and more a key concept for modern organizations: type ‘Purpose in American business’ into Google, and you’ll get 1,740,000,000 responses, for example. But how real is it? Is it the same as CSR or giving corporate money to a good cause? And, crucially, what’s its connection, if any, to L&D? On this special new Season on the podcast, we’re attempting to answer, if we can, these questions under the rubric: Is Purpose Working?

In this second conversation in our season Dani Johnson and Stacia Garr from RedThread, and Chris Pirie from LITNW, interviews Aaron Hurst: someone who literally wrote the book on  the science of purpose and fulfillment at work. Aaron is a consultant, VC, social entrepreneur and Seattle-based Purpose influencer. In 2014, his book The Purpose Economy Aaron brought widespread attention to the concept of Purpose and its importance for our lives today.

This podcast interview covers topics like:

  • How he ended up in Seattle after ‘something of a nomadic career’
  • Why the purpose age represents a new economic era and major progress in humanizing work
  • Why the non-profit world he started working in frustrated him—and what he did about it
  • Why he wrote The Purpose Economy and how he’s convinced we’re in a whole new economic era fueled by ‘meaning’
  • What last year’s Business Roundtable commitment to Purpose did for a lot of CEOs
  • The role of L&D in Purpose

And stick around for the end – where Chris, Stacia, and Dani have a 3-way debate on what Aaron told us.

Resources

Webinar

This season will culminate in a live online gated experience (a webcast) where we'll review and debate what we've learned. Seats are limited. Secure your place today, over at www.novoed.com/purpose.

Partner

We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Work podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

Global enterprises rely on its collaborative online learning platform to build high-value capabilities that result in real impact, with its customers working to deliver powerful, engaging learning that activates deep skill development, from leadership to design thinking and digital transformation, as well as driving measurable business outcomes.

TRANSCRIPT

Aaron Hurst:
This is Aaron Hurst, founder and CEO of Imperative. And I'm talking today on September 23, 2020.

Chris Pirie:
Aaron, welcome to ‘Learning Is the New Working.’ This is the first of our multi-interviewer sessions, so I'm really fingers crossed that this is going to work. We’re kicking off a brand-new series on the topic of purpose and what that means to people who are HR practitioners and talent leaders in organizations. And I can't think of a better person to sort of like frame up the landscape of purpose for us. So we really appreciate your time.

Aaron Hurst:
I'm really excited to be here and I love the whole premise of your show.

Chris Pirie
Great. Well, Stacia is going to kick us off with some introductory questions to help sketch out your practice and your impact on the world. So I'll hand over to Stacia.

Stacia Garr:
Thanks, Chris. And hi, Aaron, thanks so much for joining us today. Let's start off with what part of the world do you live in and work in and why?

Aaron Hurst:
So I've been pretty nomadic throughout my career, but I am currently living in Seattle, Washington. We moved here about six years ago when my wife was recruited to be the chief sustainability officer at Amazon, which was her dream job and we moved from Brooklyn to Seattle, with the kids.

Chris Pirie:
Yay, Seattle.

Stacia Garr:
And tell us, what's your current job title and how would you describe the work you do?

Aaron Hurst:
Yeah, so I am an entrepreneur, a social entrepreneur. I am currently founder and CEO of imperative, which is a venture-backed tech company that's really focused on helping people really show up with purpose in their day to day jobs using the latest research in neuroscience and psychology.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, definitely. And that's a very cool technology, both Dani and I have had a chance to see it. So folks out there should definitely check it out. I think today we're going to talk quite a bit about the organization that you were part of before that, which was Taproot. So can you talk about the Taproot Foundation and your role in it today?

Aaron Hurst:
I started off my career in the nonprofit sector and got quickly frustrated by the lack of resources and capacity that nonprofits had: they have these great visions, great dreams, but they weren't able to often achieve them. So I went and spent five years working in Silicon Valley in the nineties and really started to understand how you scale an organization. And it occurred to me that if we could get business professionals say marketing, tech, HR, finance, et cetera to do what lawyers do and to donate their time and their talent on a pro bono basis to nonprofits, we could actually help the nonprofit sector step up to the challenges in the world. So I started that in 2001 with early investment from Bill Draper the godfather of venture capital in the Valley. And we scaled it up to seven cities across the country and then worked with the White House to create a campaign, to get CEOs, to really pledge pro bono work, not just volunteering and philanthropy, but actually enabling their employees to what we said, give what, you know and make their work matter.

Aaron Hurst:
And then we partnered with BMW Foundation which was an incredible partnership to create a network of social entrepreneurs in 30 different countries that were building similar programs and for us all to help lift each other up. So it was this incredible experience and really working with the best of every sector across the country, around the world. And I just looked back at that and just feel so blessed to have like, had the idea at the right moment with the right people to do something that really, I feel like touched a lot of lives.

Stacia Garr:
Definitely. And actually I'm one of the lives that you touched. I don't know if you know this, but when I first moved out to the Bay Area in 2009, in the heart of the recession and found myself with—moved out where I didn't have a job, we came out for my husband to do some graduate work at Stanford. And I was, you know, trying to figure out what I was going to do next and, and to find a bit of my purpose. And so I, I started volunteering with Taproot and did a couple of different projects using my HR expertise and expanded my, my marketing expertise to it. So I'm thankful for that opportunity to, to give back that you helped create.

Aaron Hurst:
No, it's awesome. And it's just, it is so powerful when you see that your, the skills that you think of as being commercial actually are broader than that and that you can use them to really make a difference in a lot of different ways.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, absolutely. So you mentioned it just a few moments ago, but can you tell us a little bit more about what you're doing today and the role of purpose within it?

Aaron Hurst:
Yeah, absolutely. So I guess the best way to tell that story is just to quickly share sort of why I left the Taproot Foundation. So what we saw with the people who were volunteering for Taproot when we did our research, we found that the main reason people did pro bono work was because their work wasn't fulfilling enough for them. And I like to sort of describe it as like we were providing a vitamin to make up for the fact that people's sort of core entrees or core sources of food were not providing the nutrition that they needed. And, you know, I realized that it's a great marketing insight for attracting volunteers, but it actually pointed to an incredible problem in our society. And decided I really wanted to focus my energy on how do we figure out how to make all work meaningful?

Aaron Hurst:
How do we help people bring purpose to their work? So left and started Imperative and was on a journey of just research to figure out how can I take the insights from Taproot? How can I work with, you know, leading universities like Michigan and NYU? How can I work with leading companies to really crack this nut? And we started off, you know, early on with an insight, which was that if people don't know what their purpose is, they're very unlikely to be fulfilled at work because they're basically driving blind. And they're basically reacting to the world as it comes to them. So we were able to take sort of individual purpose and we were able to decode that and figure out psychologically what predicts that. So if you create the first ever assessment that enabled people to understand, at least at a high level of what brings meaning to their work, what their purpose is. And from that, you know, we started working with dozens of companies, government agencies doing that work, but we realized that to actually make a difference in people's lives, we had to find a way to systemically integrate that into you know, their, their day-to-day work.

Aaron Hurst:
It's not enough just to have this sort of moment of clarity. You have to actually change that. I think it's very similar as we talk about companies like just to finding a purpose is not enough. It's about how do you live it. And what we uncovered in our research, and we spent years and millions of dollars doing the research was that it was actually the act of regular time set aside for reflection of going and saying like, how am I intentionally showing up? How can I bring my purpose to the forefront? Combined with peer support that really was creating that lasting change in people's work. So what we've built is the first ever pure coaching platform that connects people based on their purpose profiles for ongoing conversations that we script based on what we understand the psychology of behavior change. So that every two weeks you have a one-hour conversation, you do five of these over the course of a quarter, and then you switch partners. So it's a way for people to bring purpose to their work and to also break down a lot of these barriers around social isolation and people just fundamentally feeling lonely in their lives by creating real relationships. And we're now deploying this, you know, as of this year with COVID at many companies and to seeing it's really changing people's work and changing their lives.

Chris Pirie:
You're the first in the series and we were deliberate in asking you to come on early and kind of sketch out some of the, sort of the essentials of purpose and the landscape, so to speak. In 2013 you wrote, I think it's 2013, you wrote a book called The Purpose Economy. It's a really interesting book. I think you wrote it in an interesting way. What prompted you to write the book? What were you seeing that was going on sort of at a macro level that caused you to write the book?

Aaron Hurst:
Yeah, so it was a couple of things. One is my uncle was a as an economist and entrepreneur and his thesis at Stanford when he got his PhD coined the term information economy and sort of laid out in the late seventies for the first time, sort of this idea that we'd moved from an industrial into, to an information age and information economy. It was sort of the early days of people realizing that. And, you know, he was looking at the invention of cable TV. He was looking at how media was changing and how that was basically gonna surpass industrial the industrial economy as a main source of value creation in society, which obviously became true. And this were looked at what he had seen at the time and looked around me, you know, sitting at the Taproot Foundation, seeing all these companies starting to change the way they were thinking about their workforce, how they're thinking about products seeing how the next generations were thinking about the world in very different ways.

Aaron Hurst:
It occurred to me that maybe we're at the start of this next era, sort of the post information economy, era, where purpose is going to be, what's going to be creating value for people as employees and as consumers and the company is going to be able to thrive from a recruiting standpoint and from an actual revenue standpoint or the ones that are gonna be able to harness that. And I think another way to think about this, and it's really evolved for me since 2013 and it's, it's the purpose economy, but in many ways it's the psychology economy. I think what we've seen is just industry has invested heavily in understanding the psychology of human beings and applying that to, you know, their workforce to their technology and realizing that there is this incredible need beyond just sort of feeding people and shelter et cetera, to actually solve for psychological needs, which is why we've seen things like Facebook emerge, where you're basically selling, and the innovation is around psychological manipulation in that case. But it's around the same sort of fundamental a bunch of innovation that's, it is really sort of tied into psychology. And the, sort of the understanding we've, that's emerged in the last 10 years around us for how we work as human beings.

Chris Pirie:
And can you sort of crystallize a definition of purpose economy for us and then perhaps talk about some examples or types of organizations?

Aaron Hurst:
Absolutely. So I think there's a couple of things to sort of crisply define it. I think the first thing is it's not like a sub economy the way I'm defined as it's the fourth economy in history. So agrarian, industrial, information, and then purpose economy. So it sort of ties to a whole era, not a niche of the economy. And this definition is that it's an, it's a new economic era where the creation of meaning for people as employees and consumers drives market demand and innovation.

Chris Pirie:
And talk about types – I think if I get a little bit tripped up on, you know, for example, they're a charitable organization, Dani and I did some work with the international Red Cross, and then there are, then there are sort of causal organizations that are, that support a particular cause. Are they a subset this, is there a sort of architecture I can think on purpose?

Aaron Hurst:
So it's an interesting, it's an interesting question. So I think there's two different sort of camps of purpose. I think there's the purpose that's been defined largely out of the nonprofit sector. It's been largely defined by the marketing world. And then I think there's a second piece, which really comes out of research in psychology and I'm much more in that latter camp. So I think the first camp you're looking at things where it's really is cause related and it's about identifying a cause and selling a cause of working for a cause. And I think the research shows that there is benefit there, but there are a tremendous number of people. For example, working in NGOs that are caused driven that are very unfulfilled and don't find their work terribly meaningful. For example, and there are people working in companies that you wouldn't associate a cause with who are finding deep meaning in the work.

Aaron Hurst:
So this sort of superficiality, just being able to stamp a cause on something is not really what I would say is beyond sort of that baseline superficial level. I think it has a lot more to do with actually the culture of an organization and the way in which that organization or departments in that organization make decisions about what they're building and selling and whether or not they're doing that in alignment with their values alignment with stakeholders and looking at sort of the totality of the impact of something. And then as an employer really looking at not just how do we engage our employees, but how do we actually ensure our employees are fulfilled? How do we meet their needs for strong relationships for impact for growth. And I think that's where you see like a much stronger psychological definition around this work that I think we can build on.

Aaron Hurst:
That's not just that sort of cause-related overlay. So I think the other thing I would say here is that in my experience, there's very few companies that I would say are like purpose driven or purpose companies. I tend to find it's more like a manager or a department or a product. And in a lot of these bigger companies, there's so much diversity. I mean, my wife works at Amazon and I think there's leaders there who are purpose driven and there's those that aren't, there are products that are there products that aren't, it's like too big to be able to say, like carte blanche this is a, a purpose, you know, purpose-driven organization. It really does come down to the sort of more human scale groups, if you will.

Chris Pirie:
What I wanted to go to next, and this is kind of very relevant. I like the idea that that sort of happens in pockets even in large organizations. But I want to talk about why you think business leaders have embraced this concept so much.

Aaron Hurst:
There's a couple of things. I think one is just on a personal level. I mean, I've interviewed a lot of these CEOs and they truly want their business to be about more than just sort of a legacy of money and for capital creation. They see all the problems in the world and they do like authentically wants to be part of that, but they can't do that on their own often. There's so many pressures around short term thinking and arounds for what a business should be. And it often takes just an extra dose of courage for a CEO to be able to make that leap and to be able to convince their investors, their board, et cetera, to make that, that leap to be truly like an ethical purpose driven, you know, mindset as a leader. And I think what the Business Roundtable did, which I thought was just fantastic, was it took away a lot of that risk. It basically allowed a lot of these people to come out of the closet as purpose-driven leaders who like wanted to be this way, but needed to have that group to create safety to make that statement. So I don't have a cynical point of view that I think very authentically comes from leaders, wanting their organizations to be this way and just not wanting to be out on their own doing that. Not just cause it's sort of marketing wise scary, but also I think most of us don't know how to do it yet. So the idea that they're all in it together learning, I think also creates some safety there. And then I think there's a market pressure, right. Which I think we all read about all the time, which is, you know, employees are demanding this you know, talent overall there's, you know, ups and downs, but overall right now talent market is incredibly tight.

Aaron Hurst:
And the power is in people, especially in knowledge workers, you know, software developers, et cetera, and being able to be the employer that you know, where they want to work. And there's also with, you know, social media and with the complexity now of marketing it's really hard to stand out in the marketplace if you don't have a message that aligns with the values of what people are doing and where you're not building products that are designed with psychology in mind to have people have them meet a need that keeps them loyal to your brand and loyalty your product. So there's a very strong personal case for it, for these leaders and then a very strong market case for this. And at this point, I think it has crossed that chasm where to say that you're not this way, like stands out more than saying that you are, which I think is sort of that tipping point. I think overall to say that we are now in a purpose economy.

Stacia Garr:
Aaron, I'd like to jump in here to build on that. So if, I mean, obviously the economy has gone through an interesting period here in the last few months. And, and so if that balanced tips, if we see, you know, we've seen a number of organizations starting to lay off workers if that really tips, do you think that that's going to have a hit on this vision of the purpose economy, if, if we're not in such a tight talent market.

Aaron Hurst:
I think short term, but I think longer term you know, these things go up and down and I think the cat is out of the bag in terms of people now understanding more about psychology and share more about their needs for being empowered with that message. I look at my kids and what they're being taught in the school right now, which is really around this sort of purpose first mindset towards works. I think it's gonna be really hard to go sort of backwards on this. We can see you know, a blip there. And I think it's also to look at the looking at what, where we are right now in context. I, a lot of the problems in the world right now are actually because of purpose. And I really like to point out like purpose isn’t just like only good thing, this only sort of positive force, purpose is why we want to be part of tribes. That's why we want to be feeling like a connection to community. And that's creating a lot of the political problems that we have right now. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves and something bigger than yourself can be positive or negative. So I think a lot of these forces also just, they're not all positive. I think we have to understand that purpose and psychology is sort of being used to do good and to do something completely other.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah. And one of the things we talked about in the report that I think is a shift too, is we have historically derived a lot of our purpose outside of work. So if you think about maybe in our, our communities or our churches and other institutions, and as some of those institutions have become maybe less prevalent in some people's lives, a lot of people are looking to their work to get that sense of purpose. So I think we've seen a permanent shift in terms of how people are thinking about purpose.

Aaron Hurst:
That's absolutely right. And we actually did a study with PWC last year. We looked at how fulfilled people were at work and how fulfilled they were in their lives overall. And we found that people who said they were fulfilled in their lives. So it's like overall, like I am fulfilled I'm in totality. Only 1% of those people said they weren't fulfilled at work. So I think not only is it that, you know, maybe faith and institutions and some of these community organizations are shrinking, I think it's also a recognition in research and psychology that we're one human being and we have a single mindset and a single approach to life. And that's the whole idea of like working, just be working, you're going to meet the needs for fulfillment outside of work. Look, statistically does not be a common occurrence at all.

Chris Pirie:
This is a cue to go and dive into the implications for HR. I think Dani is going to take the lead on some questions around that. Are you good to go, Dani?

Dani Johnson:
Yeah, I am. I think this has been a really interesting conversation so far. Aaron, I think you’re much more optimistic than I am.

Aaron Hurst:
[Laughs] It depends on the day.

Dani Johnson:
It gives me a little bit of hope. I'm curious, first of all, do you see a difference in organizations that are, that you would consider sort of purpose aligned or purpose driven organizations? Do you see a difference in the way that they deal with their people? So the talent management aspect?

Aaron Hurst:
Oh, I mean, absolutely. I mean, the ones that are doing it authentically are moving away from the idea of human resources and thinking of people as resources and like truly thinking of people as human beings and starting to really humanize their work practices and how they think about their people. And I think this has been accelerated due to COVID and the pandemic where it's hard to see people as anything other than human beings right now, and many organizations. So I think that that's absolutely the case. And, you know, I think there are companies that have just done the marketing version of purpose and, you know, for them often there isn't that actual internal shift. But I think that's going to be a very short-lived phenomenon because those people are not going to stay there because they're going to see that that's just a veneer so seeing an absolute change there and you see this in the interaction between a CHRO and a CEO at some of these companies where it's not just about like how engaged are my employees, what is the productivity of my employees, but it's about truly caring about their people and truly making sure that their, their needs are met and that they're set up to be their best self.

Aaron Hurst:
And it's this, you know, whole movement of bringing your full self to work. It's this whole movement around inclusion. It's the movement around enabling people to have much more autonomy. A lot of these things are really tied to the same, the same thread and the same set of values.

Dani Johnson:
Yeah. Yeah. We've seen that. I mean, we've seen a big uptick in conversations around wellbeing and stress management and those types of things, especially since COVID started. I mean, it started a couple of years ago, but especially since COVID.

Aaron Hurst:
Yeah. It accelerated for sure.

Dani Johnson:
Yeah, for sure. Wondering do you see in those organizations that you are deemed sort of purpose driven or purpose aligned, are employees generally more engaged and connected and as a result of that more innovative and productive and all of the things that most traditional types of organizations are looking for?

Aaron Hurst:
It's all over the map. I think it again depends on like how the, how the company or organization's interpreting it. So give you an example, like nonprofit organizations chronically over index to impact as the form of purpose and cause, and often therefore under-invest in the two other critical areas for people which are the relationships and growth. So we see in research that actually like the level of fulfillment in many nonprofits is really not any better than in corporations and in some cases it's much worse. So I think it's really important to sort of understand that you can't just provide purpose and a sense of impact without also addressing the relationships and the growth piece. And I think the companies that are, you know, finding success now are the ones that are linking all three of those elements together to give them much more sort of a holistic view of what's going to take for an employee to truly thrive. And that's what we're seeing, we're seeing that difference. I think the ones that are just focused on impact often start to implode on themselves because it's like a one-legged stool, which I know is mixing metaphors, you'd have an imploding stool, but but you sort of get the point, like it's just, it's not how we work as human beings. We need all three of those things, the relationships, the impact and the growth.

Dani Johnson:
Okay. Yeah, I think that makes sense. The, some of the work, it definitely makes sense. Some of our work that Stacia did over the summer was on purpose-driven organizations. And one of the big discussions we had at the beginning of that, I don't want to call it an argument, but discussions that we had at the beginning of that had to do with what exactly is purpose and organizations. And one of the things that sort of came out of that was paying attention to more than just your external stakeholders. So the things you said about employees as stakeholders, this is really resonating. Do you think there are things that leaders in more traditional of companies can learn from those that you have deemed as purpose aligned or purpose driven?

Aaron Hurst:
The biggest thing is to try to help them break it down into smaller pieces. I think it sometimes feels like a giant jump. And to, I think, first of all, start off by looking at your current bright spots. So even the worst companies out there do things that I would put in the category of purpose. They may be a very small minority of their activities, but instead of starting with deficit thinking of ‘We aren't this,’ it's sort of saying, ‘Where are we this? Where are we doing things to humanize work? Where are we doing stakeholder engagement? Where are we building products and services in a way in which it's, you know, aligned with our values and figure out how do we do more of that and amplify it?’ versus starting off at this mindset of like, ‘Oh, we're nothing like these other organizations.’ There's always at least like a dash of DNA in every organization that has this. Whether that's a person, a group, a leader, there's always something you can build on. And just starting with that and building from it that sort of positive deviant, if you will. To me it's always the best place to start.

Dani Johnson:
Right on. So we know that the traditional measurements of success are often more geared toward how an organization is doing in the marketplace or in the market in general. How do we measure purpose? How do we measure whether or not organizations have purpose and what impact that's having on maybe some of the more traditional types of stuff?

Aaron Hurst:
Well, so I think there's the HR piece, then there's like the consumer community piece. So I think to your point, stakeholder engagement is a huge part of this and whether or not an organization is actually doing, doing those activities, which is much more of an activity measurement is a pretty strong indicator. From an HR standpoint, again, I go back to, you know, we've developed this measurement of fulfillment, which we think is sort of the byproduct of working in a purpose-driven culture which is, you know, looking at the relationships impacting growth that your employees are reporting. And to use that as your barometer of whether or not the stakeholder being your employees are truly thriving. And are they working in alignment with your values around purpose? I think those simple three questions—do the employees have meaningful relationships? Because we know the majority of people don't. Are they making an impact that's meaningful to them? And are they growing in a way that matters to them?—if you optimize for those three things like that alone creates the cascading changes that are necessary.

Aaron Hurst:
So I really encourage, you know, in a lot of our corporate partners that are using our platform are starting to use that as their sort of primary indicator of the sort of health wellbeing, fulfillment, purpose, whatever you want to say of their employee base instead of the antiquated old engagement measurement, which is rooted in a human resources mindset. And then on the consumer side, a lot of what I've seen and talked to a few folks about is using those same three things, relationships, impact, and growth, and saying, how are your products or services helping people build relationships, make an impact are growing. So for example, my wife, as the chief sustainability officer at Amazon just launched today, the ability to search for products on Amazon based on their impact on the climate, right? So that's enabling their consumers to actually make an impact, right? So by doing that, you're actually selling purpose in a way, because you're enabling people to be part of, of that solution. Or if you're at a company where you're helping people actually strengthen relationships with each other or pushing them and stretching them, how are you doing those things in your, your operations in your products and services is a pretty good proxy and trying to get away from just cause as the outcome because cause is way too simplistic.

Dani Johnson:
I sit on the board of an ESOP, which is an employee-owned organization and I expected going into that experience that it would just be a purpose-driven organization. They’re in Vermont and that would sort of feed back to the whole idea of employee owned. I assumed that they would spend quite a bit of effort on, on employees and employees as stakeholders and stuff like that. And they, they do, but I'm still surprised at the, the, the metrics that we use are still mostly externally facing. So I'm just wondering in these organizations, do you see a tradeoff between maybe some of the more traditional profitability metrics against some of the ones that you just talked about or do you see organizations being able to balance both?

Aaron Hurst:
It's a new muscle that companies are trying to figure out how to, how to balance? And I think the bigger challenge is short term versus long term. It's like a lot of what we're talking about today, you know, has been shown to have a better ROI, but it's not necessarily like at one day, one week, one quarter ROI. And getting out of that mindset, that's actually the bigger, the bigger challenge. And then I think it's unlearning a lot of things, right. Unlearning that there's a lot of things we do as companies that are just legacy behaviors and when you actually unpack them and realize where they came from, they're not aligned with your values. And I think that's where a lot of my thinking around employee engagement and this sort of idea of how do we maximize output per human widget. I don't think anyone really wants to treat their people that way, but that's really where that whole movement came from. And, you know, I think once you look at the root of those things, we can start to re-engineer, redesign a lot of how we lead when we're conscious of like the origins of those old practices that aren't aligned with our values.

Chris Pirie:
I have a question I want to ask in this section and it's you know, we think a lot about work, right? And, and clearly how people work is changing or feels like it's changing really, really rapidly. And maybe even for sure, accelerated this year by the pandemic, you, you have this lovely table in your book called the ‘12 New Work Rules,’ which is kind of from, and to kind of model. And for example, you talk about, you know, in the old world, if people were preoccupied about climbing a career ladder, now it's about finding meaning in the work they do every day. In the old world, it was, you know, retirement was a good thing. That's what we were all marching towards. In the new world, you know, we're never going to stop trying to make an impact and so on and so forth. And I think the combination one is, you know, the, the command used to be a professional and now it's kind of be a human. I love this table because I think it really sort of illustrates how the mindset about what work is is changing. But there's, there's, there's kind of an elephant in the room for me. I want to get your take on it.

Aaron Hurst:
I love elephants, so I’m excited.

Chris Pirie:
Real wages have been falling precipitously and the distribution of wealth particularly in the US but fairly globally is really really out of whack, you know, over the last 20 years. We've got new forms of employment emerging, like gig work, which feels like it doesn't offer any of these kind of essential protections for, for workers. Is that a factor in all this is, is, is this an, an apology for, for, you know, a decline in wages over a period of time? I have to ask.

Aaron Hurst:
No. I don’t think it’s an apology. I think it’s—As you look at each of these economic eras, there's different government regulation that came into being around it. I think the government has, because the information age sort of grew up out of the Reagan era and beyond where we held up companies as being more effective and more valuable than the government, which was in my mind, a big mistake. We never really regulated the information economy and we're seeing, you know, what's going on politically right now as a result of corporations, effectively keeping government out of regulation of that industry. And that has created problems that, you know, I'm hopeful we can get over, but right now it's pretty easy to be pretty cynical and say that, you know, we may not as a species recover from the lack of government regulation of those of those industries and the sort of holding up Silicon Valley as the best of humanity, instead of just seeing it as creativity, which can go in a thousand different directions.

Aaron Hurst:
I think when we look at the purpose economy, I think we're seeing, you know, similarly, this is not, you know, it's not effectively being regulated and that's connected to those same things. So, you know, I wrote in the book about, you know, Uber, Airbnb, these things all come out of that same impulse around purpose and empowering people and enabling them to take more autonomy, more control of their lives being out in the community, more sort of disintermediation. All those things are positive, but they're not being effectively regulated. And we're not addressing the sort of underlying problems in the economy that really did emerge heavily. And that sort of eighties where we're seeing such a separation of classes in our society. And I think of government doesn't get involved in play its role. These things will become massive problems and they're already pretty damn big problems to begin with.

Aaron Hurst:
So I don't see it as much as apology. I see it as fundamental failure of our society to recognize the importance of government, the importance of regulation, and that we can't just trust companies to do what is sort of in the broader and broader thought of good. And I don't think we've figured it out. If you think about Moore's Law around sort of the acceleration and speed of processing and computing power, we, we've never figured out how to create a Moore's Law speed for regulation. And therefore everything's just completely out of date and the problems are emerging and becoming really bad before government even has time to process and think about the role it wants to play. And there's so much ability to then use that information and that technology to distort the public perspective, our point of view on it, so that it's nearly impossible to build the political will to address these issues.

Stacia Garr:
There's one question I really want to get at. And we focused on in the research report and that is around what's HR’s opportunity during crises, or just in general, around purpose. How do you see the role of HR in enabling organizations to achieve their purpose?

Aaron Hurst:
It's such an important question. And I think it's a really sort of look at what the role of HR has been historically. And I think even the name itself like human resources sort of speaks to, I think the old model of how we thought about work, how we thought about the role of work in our lives and the way we thought about management versus sort of employees. And I think in the past, the role of HR was around optimizing sort of output from a human resource and mitigating sort of liability from that resource and to sort of making sure there's always a bumper crop of new resources sort of coming in. And I think in the purpose economy though, the role needs to shift pretty fundamentally from this idea of sort of control to much more about lifting up. It has to go to much more of a role of seeing people truly as human beings.

Aaron Hurst:
I'm looking at, you know, how do we do mass personalization of the experience of work? How do we understand the psychology of work and what brings out the best in people? How do we proactively play a role in making sure that we've built, you know, cultures where there's a sense of belonging? How are we making sure we're hiring people who are truly aligned with the mission and purpose of the organization? How are we helping to build conversation internally that like aligns people as a tribe? So I think that's an we've been doing this evolution over the last 20 years, but I think it really brings to the forefront that needs to make that shift. And at the core that I think really is this idea of moving away from the idea of management and employees to human beings and human beings.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah. And I think that gets at some of the work that Dani and I have been doing around we've, we've thought about it as responsive organizations, but basically organizations where it's not commanding control, but it's really much more about pushing information and decision-making down and relying on some basic principles of human decency, respect and crossing primary of those two divisions.

Aaron Hurst:
I think that's right. I think there was a couple of things I would just sort of sort of double down. I think one there is a need to enable people to process information differently, I think than the past, information was thought of as like, you know, the equivalent of like coding where it's like a command or information that has to be digested. Whereas I think now it's an understanding of like there's a psychological change management process, so needing to help people process that which often is through conversation. It's through doing work around identity it's around doing work around, what does this mean for me so much more of an acknowledgement of that change management process versus just dissemination. And the thing that we found in our research that I thought was really interesting is that when we asked people, who is responsible for your fulfillment? Primarily people pretty overwhelmingly said they were responsible for their own fulfillment.

Aaron Hurst:
And when we asked people like what the number one barrier to fulfillment at work was their top answer was they were their own biggest barrier. And I think that fundamentally changes the way you think about the role of HR and management. If you assume that people are responsible for their own fulfillment and people see themselves as the greatest barrier, then your job is to help people remove their own barriers. They're creating for themselves, creating space for that and helping them do what they need to do. Whereas the old model is let's engage people, let's have engagement happen to people. What we're hearing, when you look at it from much more of a human centered point of view is people are ready to own it. And they see themselves as a barrier and the role of management and HR is to help them sort of do that work.

Stacia Garr:
Interesting.

Chris Pirie:
That's a really interesting parallel between what's going on in the learning segment as well, whether, you know, that used to be about training about this command and control transfer of knowledge to the employee. And now there's much more of an embracing of the L&D role to be, to create a culture where learning happens rather than do learning.

Aaron Hurst:
A CHRO told me recently, it's just like, you've got so many different needs and you can never anticipate those needs. So it's more about it is about building that culture. And a lot of people are talking about like as a coaching culture, which is this idea of a continuous growth and learning and challenge, and that it has to be personalized to what people need in the moment, not even what they needed yesterday.

Stacia Garr:
Let's maybe bring that to what's happening right now. So, so obviously, you know, there's, there's been a big focus on COVID—on purpose, excuse me—with COVID as well as social justice movements in the light. So maybe kind of just starting first with you, how has your own work changed this year? And then we'll talk about what's happening with organizations.

Aaron Hurst:
For me personally this year has been like, I mean, I felt guilty saying this but it's been a great year just in the sense that you know, in the work that I'm doing, I'm getting to, you know, work from home. So I'm spending a lot less time sort of dealing with commuting. I'm getting to spend more time with family a lot less stress associated with that. And the work we're actually doing you know, helping people connect is so at the core of what's needed right now. And then to see, I think with Black Lives Matter becoming more and more part of the dialogue of the nation does, you know, my values and what I care about being taken more and more seriously is just like music to my ears. So it's just, it's been a source of a lot of inspiration that way. You know, the flip side of that would be the election, which I think has had the opposite effect which has been very disheartening.

Stacia Garr:
And then as you think about purpose, has it evolved this year? And if so, in what ways.

Aaron Hurst:
I think it's evolved. I mean, again, depending on like how the angle you're looking at it, I think it's we've seen sort of the sense of people needing to take care of care of each other, taking care of family. There's been much more of a focus on the sort of family unit part of purpose. I think the, the ability to take care of one's own health has become sort of very front and center, but I think there's been this general bigger trend which is an acknowledgement that of the psychology work and the psychology of our lives, and being able to see people in their home settings realizing sort of the real world, like the influences of their lives from their health to their family, et cetera, there's been a major move of humanizing work. And I think that at the core purpose is about humanizing work.

Aaron Hurst:
And therefore, I feel like there's been this like incredible opening to have those. And I've seen so many companies talk about things they're doing now to have real dialogue in their company that a year ago wouldn't have been possible. They wouldn't have had the courage to do it. We've seen CEOs of major companies saying like, if you don't align with our values, if you don't think Black Lives Matter is like a real thing, like maybe you don't belong here. It's really just interesting to see how much more courage CEOs have had in the last year. It's given them permission to, to lead more courageously.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, definitely. So one of the things we mentioned in the report, we said you know, this year has given organizations a mandate with regard to purpose: you either walk the walk, or you walk away. It’s actively a litmus test for purpose. Do you think that's true or how have you been thinking about that?

Aaron Hurst:
Purpose is really broad. I think that's generally true. I think this is a time when there's like a lot less sort of interest in, you know, purpose washing a lot less interest in sort of just pure marketing. And there's a lot of, there's a whole movement around sort of performative activity versus actually like doing things. There's a lot more skepticism, which I think brings that up. And there's been some interesting, you know, research on the companies that, you know, looked at redefining the purpose of a company and whether or not in these times of challenge and change they're doing that. Or if they're sort of falling back to drift more traditional models. I'd like to think the majority of organizations are sort of moving in the right direction. But then you have companies that I think where there's just a ton of gray area. I mean, you look a lot of the companies in Silicon Valley, there's a lot of courage going on a lot of different ways, but there's also a lot of just continuing to be part of the problem. And I think it's, it is really hard, especially if all of your revenue is tied to behaviors that may not be as aligned with sort of the world we want to see.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah. You know, it's, it's a great point. I think between people not being as interested in purpose washing and, and I think that that's being backed up by consumers. There was a study from Edelman, their trust barometer. They ran a whole version of that back in June. And they, they found that basically organizations wanted brands to lead, particularly when it came to social justice and that if they weren't having their own house in order that they were actively, individuals would move away from purchasing those products. So kind of, I think really this strength behind, don't just talk the talk, you really have to walk the walk.

Aaron Hurst:
And it's hard. I mean, think it's a hard thing to show walking the walk, especially as a consumer to look at a company because it's so hard to understand what's really going on there and to get beyond the marketing, which is why, you know, as I've shared before, I think it's so important to look at where companies are spending their lobbying money, because that really is the indicator whether or not they're walking the walk and looking at how people are treating their people. Everything else is like, it's really hard to discern. What's real. And what's not.

Chris Pirie:
I think one of the things that we've seen right now in real time is that, you know, companies are having to make tough decisions around hiring and furloughing and laying off people just because of the hard economics of how you run a company. And I wonder if that will tarnish this trend.

Aaron Hurst:
Oh, it's so hard. I think that's, I think the early relief that was given by the federal government to help people and help certain industries really helped address a lot of that in the short term. But now that that's sort of behind us, we are seeing an awful lot of that. And, you know, seeing the airlines doing major layoffs, you know, there's you know, I think we're going to see a lot of layoffs fourth quarter of 2020. And it is, you know, how you do that, I think makes a big difference. And, you know, I, I haven't read like how well it worked, but I did like what Airbnb did, where they actually basically tried to help people get hired by enabling employees to post that they're looking and putting recommendations for them recognizing they weren't laying off people based on performance, and that there were a lot of great people that had to let go. So I think the more companies can do to visibly support their folks in an authentic way is going to make a big difference for their brand.

Chris Pirie:
Question here on the future of how we contract for our labor. Is purpose, as a concept, is it better tied to sort of entrepreneurial work than, than corporate work? Or do you see equally useful in both environments?

Aaron Hurst:
I don't know that distinction is as important as like just level of autonomy within work. And I think that when you don't have any autonomy, it's harder to find a sense of purpose because you have lessons or control and less ability to tailor it to what matters to you. Versus you know, when you have a high level of autonomy, you have a lot of ability to craft your work, to really align with what matters to you.

Aaron Hurst:
You know, I think if you think about purpose of broadest sense, I mean, the resources that a larger organization can bring to bear can do a lot to make it much easier to have a sense of purpose for as a startup, which can be completely overwhelming. And just, you know, under-resourced, and you're just trying to like stay alive. I think there's a sense of being sort of sure, constantly in the state of high, high anxiety, high purpose in a startup just because, you know, every day is a battle. But I think that also can lead to a lot of burnout and it's not always the type of purpose that is healthy in the long run. And having been in startups, basically my whole career. I mean, I think there's just that is a sprint. It's not a marathon. And that's not always the best.

Stacia Garr:
Just as you think about talent leaders, going back to who we started or who I started with a moment ago, what kind of advice would you have for them regarding purpose, especially right now? I mean given everything that we just discussed.

Aaron Hurst:
My top advice would be to create space for your people to truly have human conversations and human relationships, because that is at the core of what's going to enable the right ideas to come forward, the confidence and the right mindset to adapt and to change, that need for human connection, like really is at the core of what's needed to bring purpose to the forefront in the workplace right now. And that it is really important for leaders to be modeling this behavior themselves and for them to be talking about what they're doing very publicly so that people understand that, like this isn't just something that's asked of them, but it's something that authentically the whole organization is doing. I think the other big pieces that we'd need to really invest right now in human skills. One of the biggest barriers to purpose in our work is just how much our managers, our people lack basic human skills, basic communication skills, basic emotional skills, and all this talk on purpose, et cetera, doesn't really have the impact that's needed unless people are able to show up as human beings and to not be in a state of constant fear. They need to be able to move into a state of hope, a state of what's possible and that, you know, one of the key things we need to do as talent leaders is to create that kind of environment where that is possible.

Dani Johnson:
It's really interesting that you used the term human skills and not soft skills. We hear a lot about soft skills versus hard skills, but I think your term of human skills is actually probably more appropriate.

Aaron Hurst:
Soft skills is a problematic term because it tends to undervalue them. Especially when it's compared to like hard skills. And if you look at, you know, the research has all showing, like what CEOs are wanting is that, you know, human skills and that that's where the core skills gap is. And the challenges of teaching human skills is very different than teaching technical skills. And we tend to apply technical skills, training, modality to human skills, and we don't recognize that human skills are much more tied into psychology and therefore just need a totally different process.

Dani Johnson:
We're doing some work on skills right now, and most organizations divide skills into soft skills and hard skills. What's really interesting though, is the way that you measure hard skills or where you think about hard skills is completely void, train hard skills is completely different than the way that you measure and train and think about softer skills or what you're calling human skills.

Aaron Hurst:
No, and they show up so differently based on the environment, whereas like, you know, knowing how to code in Python tends to show up similarly in every environment. Knowing how to communicate effectively with different people. It shows up so differently. And we're so triggered by different things.

Dani Johnson:
Chris always askes his guests where their sense of purpose comes from, or if there was a person or event that had prompted you to sort of spend your life doing what you're doing, but how did you decide to spend your life this way? Or did you just stumble into it?

Aaron Hurst:
I think it's both. So I think at some level I'm just a curious bastard and I just constantly just follow where my curiosity takes me. And I'm constantly asking questions, I'm turning over stones and then sort of saying, what if you did this? What if you did that? And then all of a sudden, it's like three years later and I'm like in the throes of it. So a lot of it just is like following that curiosity thread you know, which I think brings in your values, it brings in your purpose all into that, you know, thread. You know, I think there are a bunch of people who have really inspired me in this work. My grandfather is the one I talk about most. He worked for President Kennedy and help build the Peace Corps, which, you know, to him was really about like, how do you help bring different cultures together through meaningful connection?

Aaron Hurst:
And then his work running the Aspen Institute for 25 years, which was again about having people from different political backgrounds, professions, et cetera, coming together and finding shared humanity. And so we're coming up with solutions together. So that sort of is so tied to my work of this idea of helping people find their better selves and bringing it into the public square finding ways to connect with other people. But then my parents had a big role in this as well. I, my, my father was a, you know, a PhD in a higher education administration, so sort of OD, and just always loved the work around organizational development. And both my parents were Jewish by descent, but active Buddhist. And I think that combination of sort of Buddhist and Jewish upbringing also led me into a lot of this work and the idea of like, how do we repair the world? How do we be more conscious? How can we be constantly on a path to, you know, some version of enlightenment? So these things all really sort of come together to point me to where I am today, but I would say curiosity has been definitely the thing and it hasn't killed this cat yet, but I'm sure one day it will.

Chris Pirie:
I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about your current venture. You know, we talked about Taproot earlier on, can you tell us what you're up to at the moment?

Aaron Hurst:
Yeah. So Imperative is a venture-backed technology company that has built a platform that enables a company to match their employees on an ongoing basis in peer coaching conversations. So basically conversations to support each other, to stand back and like reflect on what's going on. So creating that space for reflection, just to pull out of the hamster wheel and then to just build these deep, real, true human connections throughout their organization. So it's a platform that’s really being used to help, you know, managers connect with other managers and like really support each other, or to get people from different backgrounds to really connect inside the organization. And it really is acting as sort of a counterbalance to most technology, which has been about sort of preying on sort of a lot of fear and anxiety and the sort of sending out information after information after information. We're trying to take the space back for real human connection and finding there's just such a hunger for that, both from employees, but also from leadership to be able to do that.

Aaron Hurst:
And we really see with Imperative that it's going to become the backbone of the culture of organizations that this intentional reflection and connection time is gonna, you know, soon be as common as sort of a one-on-one that we considered a sort of a standard part of business practice because the neuroscience, the positive psychology, the change management, it's all pointing to this as really the only way to do it. So, you know, we're working with companies now deploying this. We're seeing that it's, you know, creating like profound relationships, it's creating behavior change. It's having people take ownership of their fulfillment and their effectiveness. And then that whole process has giving, you know, whole new insights to companies about what's going on with their employees and what they really care about. So I'm just really hopeful that this is really going to be the start of a major next chapter and purpose and the humanizing of work. And I'm really, I'm encouraged by the reaction to it so far.

Chris Pirie:
Really exciting stuff. And, and, and on theme.

Aaron Hurst:
On curiosity.

Chris Pirie:
Listen, I want to thank you for your time today and sort of giving us this primer and we are going to go off now and have some conversations, in fact, we’ve already started with some really interesting people who are putting some of your ideas into practice and learning as we go, so thanks a lot for your time, Aaron.

Dani Johnson:
Thanks, Aaron. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

Aaron Hurst:
I loved it. Thanks for putting this together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

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